Ask most anyone to name images of Easter. Chances are they will answer “bunnies” and “eggs.” But before we hasten to caution them with advice like, “Really, Easter is about Jesus risen from the dead and that’s why we celebrate this most important festival of the church year,” it might be wise to do a background check.
The Easter bunny, rabbit or hare is widely depicted as the lovable, furry animal who brings eggs to children who scramble to find them. German Lutherans from Europe brought the practice of the Easter hare to North America in the 18th century. The hare was originally portrayed as a judge during the Easter season (like Santa at Christmas) who assessed kids to be naughty or nice. Eggs were considered a reward for good behaviour, like fruit or nuts at that other major celebration.
All through the Middle Ages, hares had been depicted as hermaphrodites, who could self-impregnate and reproduce without loss of virginity-a highly valued image. The Virgin Mary and the Trinity were frequently portrayed with fertile but chaste hare illuminations on manuscripts and paintings
Birds lay eggs, and hares/bunnies give birth to large litters in the early spring. These became symbols of the renewal of the earth.
Those German Protestants passed on a custom they had borrowed from Orthodox Christians who ate coloured and dyed eggs at Eastertide. It was a celebratory rite to welcome spring into homes long depressed and darkened with winter cold. In the 19th and 20th centuries, these images were added to the Easter rituals of many North American Christians and others.
Then, of course, the marketers took over. Postmodernity has deepened the divide between believing Christians and others who differed over the resurrection of Christ and the renewal of nature. So, today, I cringe when I see the Easter bunny in church. It smacks, for me, of syncretism and the kitsch of Santa kneeling at the manger.
But maybe bunnies and eggs are just the beginning of a quest for deeper awareness and understanding. The early blending of classic Christian teachings with local folklore and ritual in places all over the world is a fascinating study of Christian missions encountering ancient mythologies.
Christianity began with the dramatic experience of the resurrection of Jesus shared by the early communities of believers. Over the centuries, that core event has been interpreted through some of the most creative imagery known to humanity.
Through time, the dramatic vitality of those original encounters between Gospel and paganism has been lost. Long have Christians considered pagan images and myths to be heretical and satanic. The result is that bunnies and butterflies seem to inhabit two solitudes.
Today, however, the influence of the social sciences like anthropology and literary criticism have made it possible to discern deep meaning in both the understandings of our primal ancestors and modern spiritual seekers.
As Christians continue to celebrate our treasured resurrection narratives, we might recall that earlier Christians utilized a wide range of symbols and images from varied sources to communicate the Good News.
Some information for this column was gleaned from the Wikipedia article entitled “Easter Bunny”:
Wayne A. Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and helps to co-ordinate adult spiritual development at St. David’s United Church in Calgary.